Like most juniors in college, I don’t think much about high school anymore. The days of waking up at 6 a.m. and sitting through seven-plus hours of class every day are over, at least until I enter the real world of nine-to-five employment. I am ostensibly much cooler, smarter and more put-together than I was as a teenager—or at least that’s what I’d like to think. However, every now and then something will remind me of the uniqueness (or if we’re being totally honest here, the weirdness) of my middle and high school experience.

From seventh through 12th grade, I attended a tiny, all-girls Catholic school. When I say tiny, I mean tiny. There were about 180 students in the entire school and I graduated with a class of 23. And when I say Catholic, I mean really Catholic. We prayed before every class, attended daily mass, and took theology courses where we were taught strict Church teaching on issues ranging from premarital sex to abortion to homosexuality.

Needless to say, college was something of a culture shock for scared freshman me. After spending six years in a boy-free environment, there were suddenly boys living next door. No one was warning me about the evils of birth control anymore. Proctors on every floor were handing out free condoms.

As I adjusted to this new and foreign world, I was pretty quick to repudiate my high school experience. I met new people, acclimated to my surroundings, and didn’t define myself by the environment I’d left behind. High school had been one part of my life, I thought, and college was another, totally different one.

But after I’d gotten some distance from all the bad things about my high school—the needlessly strict rules about everything from uniforms to eating in the hallways, the constant focus on Catholic social doctrines I disagreed with, the fact that I knew every single student at my school by name—I started to remember the good ones. Most importantly, I started to realize what I had learned from my six years in an all-female environment.

I realize that most people stereotype the “Catholic school girl” as a lesbian, prude and/or slut. But my experience at an all girls school was much more nuanced and empowering than you might assume.

First, it taught me not to obsess too much about outward appearances. Spending all my time with a group of girls I’d known since age 12 meant I didn’t have anyone to impress, and wearing a uniform meant I put minimal effort into my daily appearance. Makeup was optional, and girls would take pride in going weeks or months without shaving their legs. Nobody dieted or obsessed about counting calories, and nobody was ashamed of having a healthy appetite or loving junk food. We were free from the male gaze, and we relished that freedom.

More concretely, the all-female experience also taught me to be assertive and value my own opinion. Our head of school would often stress that she was not teaching her students to be “nice girls”—she was teaching them to be smart, confident women. My school wasn’t alone in this; a 2009 UCLA study found that alumnae of all-female high schools had higher levels of academic achievement and more confidence in their abilities than students from co-ed schools. Meg Milne Moulton, executive director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, has suggested that all-girls schools promote an environment in which “it’s cool to be smart,” creating “a culture of achievement in which a girl’s academic progress is of central importance.

This description might sound cheesy, but after two years of college I’ve come to realize just how important that experience was. I’ve noticed in many of my classes (especially those in traditionally male-dominated departments) that boys will confidently speak up and defend their opinions, even after pushback from a classmate or the professor. Meanwhile, girls will often speak more tentatively, qualifying their comments with statements like “I could be wrong” or “This is just my opinion.” I too am  definitely guilty of this at times, but I also try to remind myself that my ideas are valid and I should express them regardless of the genders of the other people in the room.

I’m definitely happy to have moved from an all-female to a co-ed environment, and I like having the opportunity to engage in discussions about controversial issues that were often taboo at my high school. At the same time, though, I’m grateful for the opportunities my time at an all-girls school afforded me. My 14 year-old self may not have seen the value in an all-female education, but time (and distance) have made me more appreciative of what it taught me.